For obvious reasons, this is one of the most misunderstood and distorted teachings of Islam. The sad fact is that mass media has pounded the heretical understanding of Jihad into the minds of non-Muslim world. As journalists they should be able to investigate and find out that what murderous terrorists are doing is not Jihad. Rather it is the grave sin of murder which is undoubtedly politically motivated and religiously “justified” to gain soldiers to the cause.
Jihad literally means to struggle and strive. To make it through and overcome uncomfortable hardship.
The theological concept is a multi-layered form of devotion that aims at eradicating evil, oppression, corruption and aggression from oneself, one’s environment and the world over.
It all starts with the spiritual path in which we realize two fundamental concepts; Satan is our enemy and has permeating influence in the world including our own minds. This means our egos and desires can be touched by evil. This is the meaning of the following verse,
“…Indeed the ego leads to evil…” (12:53)
In order to regulate this tendency and overcome it on a daily basis there are two steps. The first is to take account of oneself and empower people to help you to realize your shortcomings.
“I swear by the self-accounting soul” (75:2)
So in essence we are in a constant Jihad against the devil and his influence upon us. This is done through humility, a sincere devotion to God, seeking knowledge from revelation and self-accountability.
The next layer of Jihad is what is often referred to as the 6th pillar of Islam. This is the practice of promoting righteousness and opposing evil. The Quran tells us,
“You have been made the greatest nation brought forth for the benefit of humanity for promoting uprightness and opposing what is wrong and you believe in God.” (3:110)
“The believing men and women are guardians of each other. They promote uprightness and oppose what is wrong…” (9:71)
This is an individual and collective social directive to promote social welfare and to remove evil and corruption. The institutions of the police department and fire department are undoubtedly institutionalized Jihad.
The last element of Jihad is obviously the source of the controversy. This is the command for a Muslim land to establish a standing military and fight the aggressive and/or oppressive neighboring government. It is crucial for us to understand the order in which these verses were revealed as well as their context.
As the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) began to present His monotheistic message to the people of Makkah and people followed him, they faced strong opposition from the polytheist community. This started in the form of mocking the Prophet and slowly gained momentum to systemic oppression involving boycott, abuse and even torture.
After 4 years of this oppression, about a third of the Muslims were forced to flee to the neighboring Christian kingdom of Ethiopia where they were given asylum. Different groups would go back and forth some staying for many years.
After 13 years of this incessant abuse, God blessed the Muslim community with the conversion of a large part of the city of Yathrib NE of Makkah. The Prophet (PBUH) had sent a young man named Mus’ab bin Umair to be an ambassador to invite them to Islam. They were mesmerized by the discipline, character and wisdom he had attained through his faith.
The Muslims all migrated to Yathrib which was then called the city of the Prophet or Madinah. Before leaving, the polytheists of Makkah had attempted to assassinate Muhammad (PBUH). When they heard of his escape they put a 100 reward on his head dead or alive.
In Madinah, the prophet appointed a couple spies to report on the activities of their old oppressors. The prophet soon found out the intentions of the polytheists to continue their campaign against the Muslims in order to destroy them once and for all. So of course he prayed for guidance and God revealed the following verse,
“Permission to fight back is hereby given to those who been attacked and oppressed as indeed God is fully capable of supporting them. This permission is because they were unjustly expelled from their homeland simply because they said ‘Our Lord is God alone’! If it was not for God commission some to check others, we would see the destruction of temples, churches and monasteries where God’s name is oft mentioned…” (22:39)
In this first verse permitting the Muslims to fight, we see the whole purpose is to preserve freedom of religion! It is about the right of Muslims or others to have their religion and follow it as they see fit.
The first battle was at Badr which is between Makkah and Madinah within months of this verse being revealed. The Muslims were out manned three to one and the polytheists had a greater arsenal and yet the Muslims were miraculously victorious. The Muslims were hopeful that this would be a sign to the polytheists and that they would stop their aggressions. God revealed verses for the Muslims to be prepared regardless if the polytheists want war or peace,
“Prepare your military strength that will put fear into the enemy of God and the believers… If they incline to peace then you must too and trust in God who hears and knows all.” (8:60-61)
Unfortunately the next year they brought an army of three thousand to the outskirts of Madinah by the mountain of Uhud. This battle was a loss, but the Muslims were able to defend Madinah from invasion. The verse of the Quran revealed after this in order to address the historical threat of the polytheists and their allies in Arabia were for the next six years,
“Fight, for the sake of God, only those who fight against you and do not be the aggressors for surely God does not like the aggressors.” (2:190)
The verse goes on about fighting for victory and wiping out the enemy aggressors unless and until…
“If they stop fighting you then know that God is Forgiving an Merciful.” (2:192)
“You are to fight them to eradicate the turmoil they have caused your society and so that you can practice your religion sincerely for God without offense. There shall be no aggression except against the oppressors.” (2:193)
The next six years saw more acts of war and aggression from the polytheists who on two occasions joined forces with some treacherous Jewish tribes surrounding Madinah. The last straw was after they broke a peace treaty in which the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) conceded so much to them.
By that time God had guided most of Arabia to Islam. The Prophet had also sent ambassadors to the neighboring empires to introduce Islam and the new state of Arabia. God revealed to verses with two different contexts.
In the early 8th year A.H, the news came back that the Muslim ambassador sent to the Byzantines had been murdered by the Ghassanide Christian Arab tribe which has an alliance with the Byzantines. God then revealed the following verse of the Quran,
“Fight those among the people of the book who don’t believe in God and the Last Day, who do not forbid what God and His messenger have prohibited and don’t follow the true way of God until they pay a tax as a humble citizen.” (9:29)
This verse was a directive to respond to the act of war the Byzantines made by killing the Muslim ambassador. It was also understood by most exegetes to be a mandate to topple the oppressive and corrupt Byzantine Empire. All objective non-Muslim historians note this fact about the Byzantines as well as the fact that the true Muslim Caliphate was a refuge in which non-Muslims flourished. The goal of such wars was without doubt not to convert the people, but rather to respect their right to maintain their faith as citizens of the Islamic State. The Quran tells us,
“There must be NO compulsion in religion.” (2:256)
“Say the truth from your Lord, whoever wills let them believe and whoever wills let them disbelieve.” (18:29)
The Prophet said, “Whoever kills a non-Muslim under treaty or covenant with a Muslim will never smell the fragrance of Heaven.”
“Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, curtails their rights, burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.”
This fact was documented by the devout Catholic prominent historian Will Durant,
“At the time of the Caliphate, the people of the covenant, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Sabians, all enjoyed degree of tolerance that we do not find even today in Christian countries. They were free to practice the rituals of their religion and their churches and temples were preserved. They enjoyed autonomy in that they were subject to the religious laws of their own scholars and judges.” (The Story of Civilization. vol. 13. p. 131-132)
In the 8th year A.H. after the polytheists broke the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, the prophet gathered the largest army ever assembled in Arabia of over 10,000 soldiers to conquer Makkah and solve the problem of the polytheist stronghold of the Quraish once and for all. The amazing testimony of the Prophet’s (PBUH) nature is as he was arriving at the outskirts of Makkah.
He called out to them saying,
“I speak to you in the same words as Joseph spoke to his brothers. This day there is no reproof against you; Go your way, for you are safe and free of retribution. Even he Who enters the house of Abu Sufyan (leader of the polytheist army) will be safe, He who lays down arms will be safe, He who locks his door will be safe”
These are the people who have now for 21 years have abused, tortured and killed the Muslims. Most military leaders in history would have massacred the whole city as was the case in the crusaders conquest of Jerusalem or the Spanish inquisition. The Prophet was giving them a last chance to live peacefully with the Muslims in hopes that this will show the lofty character of mercy and forgiveness known best in God and His servants.
Many Makkans were touched and embraced Islam, but many didn’t. A few weeks later, the large polytheist tribes of Hawazin and Ta’if brought an army twice the size of the Muslim army in hopes to once and for all destroy the Muslims. God was gracious and after hours of the Muslims losing the battle, they were able to push back the massive army until they retreated.
The next year the first verses of 9th chapter of the Quran Sura al-Tawbah were revealed which were an announcement of a complete banishment of polytheism in Arabia henceforth. God gave the remaining polytheists a final ultimatum which they had four months leave Arabia, embrace Islam, study Islam or a final battle. Our scholars comment that these were revealed after these polytheists has proven to be abusive and treacherous neighbors. Now that Muslims will be coming for pilgrimage yearly, they need a safe place to take their families without fear of abuse.
These verses do come in this context of a final battle in which it says,
“When the four months is over, then kill the polytheists wherever you encounter them…” (9:5)
The very next verse gives asylum to those who would still like to learn about Islam,
“Then if any of the polytheists seek asylum with you then give him a safe refuge so that he may hear the word of God. This is because they are a people who do not know.” (9:6)